The Departed

The Departed

“We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question.”

So Scorsese directed another gangster film. After Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and more, you’d think this would be old hat. But this movie is brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, and thoroughly enjoyable. Martin Scorsese takes the helm, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson deliver incredible performances. The art direction, from the cinematography to the soundtrack, are perfect for this movie. It’s not The Godfather (but, really, what is?); but I’ll admit, I had more fun watching The Departed than I’ve had watching any other gangster movie.

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Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket

“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day, you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human beings.”

There are a lot of good movies about war. Full Metal Jacket is a movie about soldiers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, 2001) and starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey, this movie shows how war affects soldiers, but each soldier responds a little differently. In true Kubrick fashion, the message is not neatly wrapped and handed to the viewer, and it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide what he or she feels afterward. Also in true Kubrick fashion, the movie is absolutely brilliant and masterfully executed. It stands out as a deeply personal war film with excellent art direction that’s worth seeing today.

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Black Swan

Black Swan

“In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right—but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”

If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.

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Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday

“Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”

Though there are a lot of great older movies, the term “classic film” evokes some very specific feelings. Classic films show characters dealing with complicated and timeless emotions and situations. They’re fun and memorable without being overly sentimental. They transport you to another world that may or may not be based on reality, but is nonetheless fantastic. They have a sense of class and elegance that’s just missing in today’s movies. In my opinion, no movie is more classic than Roman Holiday. Directed by William Wyler (Ben Hur, The Best Years of our Lives) and starring Gregory Peck and, for her first major movie ever, Audrey Hepburn, this is a movie that, for me, is the quintessential classic film and will always be one of my favorites.

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Some Like it Hot

Some Like it Hot

“What are you afraid of? No one’s asking you to have a baby!”

Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s so hot and wildly funny that it gets banned in Kansas. The 1959 movie Some Like it Hot is one such movie. Directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity) and starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, this is widely considered one of the best comedies of all time. Though fairly tame by today’s standards, it was wildly inappropriate when it was released. More progressive cities like L.A. gave it a standing ovations, while other cities had people walking out (and, as I mentioned, it was initially banned in my home state of Kansas). But the movie is still hilarious today, and worth seeing for any comedy fan.

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The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums

“All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.”

We’ll probably never get a movie version of J.D. Salinger’s classic book Franny and Zooey; but The Royal Tenenbaums feels like it could be a sequel. Directed by art house director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and starring Gene Hackman and a host of other famous people, it tells the story of a troubled family that’s trying to discover what the word “family” means, even years after they’ve parted ways. It’s quirky, touching, and funny, and the Wes Anderson retro style is as charming here as anywhere else. Also, words can’t express how much I love the ending of this film. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and may be the most charming of Anderson’s films.

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The African Queen

The African Queen

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”

In the classic era of cinema, female characters had an interesting but disappointing trait: they relied on the male characters to move the plot along. Though there were some strong female characters in the 30s and 40s, they were usually portrayed as less capable than the males, and the plot usually didn’t go anywhere until the males got involved. In most movies of that era, the females were also very dependent on the males. (I know there will undoubtedly be some exceptions, but this was the norm.) This era started to die off in the 50s (although traces of it can still be seen today), and for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1951 movie The African Queen. Directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a movie that not only defined the romantic adventure genre (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean are modern derivatives), but it also showed that a female lead who is in every way her male co-star’s equal can make for a successful film.

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Following

Following

“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”

It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.

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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express

“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”

A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.

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Airplane!

Airplane!

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

Though often overlooked, disaster movies are big business. The airplane subgenre alone currently has 77 entries—and the movie Airplane! lampoons all of them. It was written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who were known mostly for sketch comedy at the time (Kentucky Fried Movie), but went on to write other parodies like the Hot Shots and Naked Gun series. It was also the first comedic performance of traditionally serious actors like Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges, who went on to be comedy legends. Whether you get the parody references or not, the movie is a serious contender for best comedy of all time and still holds up very well today.

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